Snow in the Desert
Nicky Gluch (University of Technology Sydney)
The woman from Tel Aviv made a great story. She’d arrived for a routine ECG and was disgusted to find herself in the emergency room waiting amongst the ailing. For all she knew, they had the plague. When it came to her turn, she made a show of easing herself onto the bed, slow and sultry, sunglasses on and bright red curls tossed over the shoulder.
‘If you could undress,’ I asked.
‘I’m ready,’ she replied as she unzipped her tight leather jacket. There was nothing beneath!
This was the story I chose to tell, rather than the many from my day that were lined with despair and the stench of shit. Laughter therapy couldn’t have saved the man I’d seen in cardiac arrest but it sure helped me.
On Sundays I worked at Hadassah hospital and every week after my shift I would go home and tell these stories. Home was my friend Sandy’s apartment. I climbed the eight flights, reaching her breathless, and then stood in her kitchen regaling her with these stories over cups of tepid tea. And we would laugh and laugh, our bodies shaking, so raucously her roommates would come to see what was so funny. But it was impossible to explain. Only Sandy understood the unique nature of Hadassah – perhaps because she embodied it.
Hadassah Mt Scopus sits next to the British War Memorial – a hospital neighbouring a cemetery, far beyond the walls of old Jerusalem. It’s the bastion of unreported peace in a world of conflict where Jews and Arabs work, sleep and eat side by side. It’s where Arabic nurses come to train before returning to their villages and where there’s always a female aide on hand for those patients who cannot be touched by a man.
It’s a paradox.
Sandy was a paradox. The pacifist who served in the US army, the innocent blonde fluent in Arabic, the small town girl who was a citizen of the world…
She loved to hear of the conscripts who preferred a day in the ER to a day of duty. These khaki brave hearts swapped crocodile tears for real ones once on the gurney where, without fail, the men asked ‘Will this hurt?’
With glee she heard of the particular conscript who was found to have heart palpitations of a different kind when I came to do his ECG. Wiping damp cotton wool across his naked chest I needed no machine to tell me that he was in fine health.
With earnestness she listened to me explain how I had drawn back the curtain to find three men giggling like school children.
‘Hello Nicky’, they said in their over pronounced English, ‘Mohammed says you will be very nice to us’.
From the corners of Sandy’s mouth would spill laughter, for Mohammed was an ongoing saga.
Who else could I have told about the nurse, a hardworking larrikin, who said I was ‘the best thing that had happened to him’? How he came to my bay and sat while I read until he was paged… How he told me it was stupid that my family lived so far apart whilst his all lived in the same village…
Sandy understood that my flirtation with Mohammed was not attempting to break all social taboos. That it was knowingly futureless and, as such, liberating. At twenty years-old I got to have a man tell me I was beautiful without fearing it would turn sexual. It was dating without the anxiety – I was not welcome in his village and our relationship was the better for it. He was on the phone when I had to leave for the last time. I brazenly touched his hand and mouthed ‘goodbye’.
It is only with people who fully understand us that things can be left unsaid.
If I told Sandy how religious women, immaculately made-up, came into the ER and unbuttoned their long coats to reveal Winnie-the-Pooh pyjamas beneath, she knew that we weren’t analysing their fashion choices. That rather, we were discussing the incongruity of their public and private personas.
But standing there while she chopped sweet potato I preferred to giggle about the surprise that Winnie himself had been hiding – black lingerie – and how I could start giving tips to men on how best to unfasten a woman’s bra. The sexual tone of our discourse, humorous considering our personal inexperience, hid how uncomfortable I was that I had learnt to undress and re-dress women.
Some of my patients were, in combination, so large and so old that they couldn’t reach around to fasten their intricate bras. One of my patients was neither large nor old but instead hysterical. Sobbing as she lay there overlooked by her male chaperone, I had to remove her clothes against her will. I remember the thought that crossed my mind: that this is what rapists do.
I countered the dramatic with the humorous such as The Tale of the Fainting Nun. Sandy was in stiches as I, with dramatics, told of the Sister who’d been rushed in for an urgent ECG but, speaking only French, could not understand what was going on and could not be left un-propped; anything but upright and her eyes rolled back into her head and she lost consciousness. There I was, holding up her body, shouting at Ahsan, the nurse, to come and help me when her Soeur arrived. Flustered as she was and desperate to know what was going on, I summoned all my high school French and, clutching my breast, repeated emphatically, ‘le coeur, le coeur’.
Funny it was, but we weren’t really talking about French nuns. No, we were far more concerned by the fact that each and every day people are as trapped by language as we had been. Arabic will be spoken on one street, Hebrew on the next and yet the people cannot meet and talk at the corner. With two different alphabets, they can’t even guess at what a sign might say. Sure, amongst the educated, English is a somewhat useful middle ground. But any society built for the educated is sure to fail.
Just ask the French.
Hadassah is the revolutionary antidote to the bourgeois state. It is liberté, égalité, sororité for it was founded and is maintained by women. Queen Esther was named Hadassah, the Jew who lived amongst the Persians. She would be proud to be the figurehead of coexistence where everyone comes in as themselves and are treated as equals. Speak Hebrew, the doctor will be with you shortly, speak Arabic, the nurse is just over there. Whether you come by way of the red star, crescent, or cross, once inside you are a wristband and yellow sticker. Your name will be transliterated multiple times because of the English keyboards and, with a vowelless alphabet, you may find yourself born anew. But you’ll emphatically correct me when I mispronounce it just like I’ll explain to you that, where I’m from, Nicky is a girls’ name too.
Who’s the person on the other side of the curtain? I’m afraid I can’t say. They could be a Syrian war casualty, brought in by helicopter in the stealth of night, or perhaps an American millionaire with their own security personnel. Or, as more likely, just someone like you who took ill and needed some care.
After Hurricane Katrina there were riots on the streets of New Orleans. When it snowed in Jerusalem and the city shut down, there was peace. Hadassah was a haven. One Thursday, I was called in as emergency support. With the roads closed, my boss knew that I, living within walking distance from the hospital, was her only hope. The day was long but at the end of it, I was able to go home. Those who lived too far away stayed. And stayed, and stayed…When I returned on Sunday morning they were slumped against cabinets or sitting, barely upright, on the empty beds. Suddenly the doors of the ER burst open. Through them power-walked the Chief, a biblical hero with a bum-bag and sports jacket atop his green scrubs, beard swinging in his haste.
‘It’s alright,’ he said, ‘I’m here. Everything is going to be ok!’
He’d arranged for a bus to finally take the staff home and, in so doing, saved them from the onslaught. Like Moses with his hands outstretched, he parted the way and the people flooded through. Within two hours, all the beds were filled and more had to be made up. Such was the shortage of nurses that the ambulance offices helped process the patients they brought in. And the patients… The demographic was unlike any I’d experienced – the emergency cases affected by the cold, stroke victims and the mentally ill and those with heart conditions: those that couldn’t care for themselves. But never in any of this was there a moment of discord. As in awe as I was of this miracle of peace, all I could think about was how the Chief had saved us all.
I finished my shift and walked home, treading carefully down the unswept paths. Climbing the eight flights to Sandy’s I was unhurried, arriving in full breath. This time, her roommates had no cause to investigate for I didn’t need to laugh with Sandy that night. If it could snow in the desert, I could allow myself to cry.
Nicky Gluch attended the Hebrew University during the Autumn Semester of 2013-14. There, she was fortunate enough to combine her studies with volunteering at Hadassah Hospital. Having planned to study postgraduate medicine, this eye-opening experience ironically led Nicky to reinvestigate her first love, music. Now back in Sydney, Nicky is taking her Masters at the Sydney Conservatorium as well as a certificate in Editing/Publishing at UTS. When not at university, Nicky can be found presenting programs for FineMusic 102.5 or attending conducting workshops both in Australia and around the world.